Collectors of world coins are familiar with the acronym “OFEC,” meaning the pursuit of collecting “one from every country.” A recent discovery in an old storage unit reminded me that I was once an OFEC collector. Sealed for more than 20 years in a cardboard box, my first coin album is filled with 2x2s holding coins from countries that I don’t remember collecting; Argentina, Nigeria, Vietnam, and many others. For most countries, there is only one coin, the classic symptom of an OFEC collector. Even though my OFEC ambitions were apparently derailed by unremembered Middle-School-era tribulations, I can nevertheless imagine the thrill that collectors might feel while hunting down the elusive final coins before finalizing this impressive goal. OFEC is a surprisingly flexible collecting strategy. Collectors can define their OFEC set as broadly or as narrowly as they wish (i.e. birth year, animal-themed, slabbed and graded, etc.) and they are able to avoid the monotony that comes along with collecting coins of a single variety or series. However, OFEC is not for all personality types. For those who treasure depth more than breadth or for those who shudder at the unfamiliar, OFEC may seem cumbersome and boundless, that is, until you meet OFEC’s foul-mouthed half-sibling, OFEGS.
Just as I had not remembered that I was once an OFEC collector, I was caught off guard when I had more recently come to the realization that I had become an OFEGS collector; one of the most radical of numismatic sects. My collecting goals, I swear, were once simple, straightforward, and reasonable. I work hard, pay my bills on time, live by the Golden Rule, and never clean my coins. How then had I come to wear this albatross around my neck? As I look through my collection, I count 78, yes 78 (not 7 or 8) unique German States represented out of a total of approximately 250 German States coins. I hadn’t consciously done this! It can’t be! I hadn’t chosen it; it had chosen me! I am—gasp—a collector of one from every German State (OFEGS)!
Really, I had not actually set out to be an OFEGS collector. With an interest in Central European history and hundreds of hours logged on Deutsche Bahn passenger trains, German coins had become an obvious collecting area for me. I had begun by collecting affordable coins from select German States. This was fun and easy. I rapidly accumulated a number of inexpensive Kreutzer and pfennig coins from the Duchy of Nassau, where I spent much of 2008 (the Duchy of Nassau was annexed by Prussia in 1866, so I of course mean that I lived in an area that was once part of Nassau…it would in fact be far more newsworthy if I had lived in the real Duchy of Nassau). But the more I scanned eBay and finger-walked through dealers’ boxes at shows, the more I casually picked up a coin from Aachen here, Zerbst there, and Mecklenburg in between. To be sure, I am deeper in some German States than others, either because their coins are ubiquitous (i.e. Prussia and Bavaria) or because of a personal connection (Nassau, Mainz, Trier). Nevertheless, a collection of almost 80 different states—just added Hall im Schwaben this week—was never my intention!
Just how close am I to completing the OFEGS set? The question is academic. It’s a Herculean task, and I doubt that any collector has succeeded. Between the years 843 (when the Treaty of Verdun laid the foundation for the Holy Roman Empire) and 1871 (when Germany was “invented” out of the remaining patchwork of states), there existed thousands of unique coin-issuing entities that today fall under the title, “German States.” States came and went at a spectacular pace. Earth-rattling events such as the Thirty Years’ and Napoleonic Wars demolished some states while they simultaneously forged others. Royal marriages, papal favor, border skirmishes, and disputed paternity were also common causes for terminating existing states and birthing new ones. Coin collectors are the surprising beneficiaries of this turbulent 1,000 year period.
Let’s look at Krause’s 17th Century Standard Catalog of World Coins (2nd Edition) for a quick statistical lesson. The book contains 1,217 pages of coins; a whopping 520 of these pages are dedicated to the German States. We can haphazardly extrapolate that roughly 42% of the world’s coin types struck in the 17th century were issued by the German States! In fact, the total number of German States coins in the 17th century was probably greater than 50% of the world’s total! I asked my 10-year old daughter to count the number of unique states listed in this Krause volume. She came back an hour later: too many. I agreed.
But of course, sheer volume is not what makes a collecting area interesting. In fact, collectors may justifiably be turned off by the unending supply and ceaseless complexity of German States coins. Sifting through a millennium of history and thousands of monarchies, duchies, bishoprics, principalities, free cities, knighthoods, and other peculiar state formations is not for the half willing. But with complexities come opportunities. This general rule is no less true in our hobby than in others. It’s hard to say that collecting German States coins has helped me become a better numismatist, but it’s even harder to say that it hasn’t.
The number of sub-specializations under the “German States” umbrella is enormous because of the immeasurable quantity of different coin types. In fact, the very term “German States” is misleading because it implies a certain unity and ex-changeability among currency systems that were always difficult to align. It might surprise typically bashful collectors to know that reforming the unwieldy state-based monetary system was one of the most important challenges for nationalist-minded politicians, lawyers, academics, and businessmen in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much more so than today, coins were central in the daily lives of our predecessors.
In conclusion, what is it that makes the German States such a collectible area? There are two ways to answer: I can offer, at length, and probably with futility, dozens of examples and personal reflections, or I can simply implore you to seek the answer for yourself. The choice here is easy, though the path is not. With a little determination and patience (deep pockets optional), the journey through the German States can be as rewarding as any, and I recommend it to any numismatist eager for new scenery.